Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds cannot be spent on region’s ailing sewers

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative won't fix sewer overflows problems like this one in Akron, Ohio.  Photo: City of Akron

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative won't fix sewer overflows problems like this one in Akron, Ohio. Photo: City of Akron

By Jeff Gillies, jeffgillies@gmail.com
Great Lakes Echo
Aug. 11, 2009

The Great Lakes states have more outdated sewers dumping waste into local waterways than anywhere else in the country.

At the same time the region is on the verge of a federal infusion of $475 million for environmental protection.

Happy convergence of problem and solution? Not really.

The money, part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that Congress is considering, will come with a qualifier: It can’t be used to upgrade sewers or build water treatment plants.

Instead, the initiative targets invasive species, contaminated sediment and habitat restoration, among other things.

Cities looking for help replacing pipes that spill sewage into rivers and leak waste into water supplies have to look somewhere else.

That’s in part because officials feared that sewer upgrades would quickly deplete the proposed $475 million new initiative and inpart because there are attempts to fund repairs from other new sources.

Meanwhile, Great Lakes sewers are in trouble.

Sewers overflowing, pipes cracking

One problem is that the region’s sewer systems often use the same pipes to move household sewage and storm water runoff to wastewater treatment plants. Heavy rain causes pipes to overflow and send partially treated or raw sewage into rivers and lakes. That sewage contains pathogens and toxic pollutants that can close beaches, contaminate drinking water and create other environmental problems.

In a 2004 survey (PDF), the Environmental Protection Agency found 70 percent of the nation’s combined sewer systems in need of upgrade were in the Great Lakes states.

It’s a serious problem that isn’t going away soon, said David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a coalition of 66 U.S. and Canadian cities.

“This has gotten worse as more and more land is paved over in urban areas,” Ullrich said. “It’s also been made worse because of climate change implications with more intense rainfall events.”

Overflows aren’t the only problem. The region’s aging sewer pipes are developing cracks large enough to leak but small enough to go unnoticed, said Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute.

“It’s kind of a death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “These small leaks all cumulatively have the potential to impact our water quality.”

Stimulus helped sewers, upgrades too costly for GLRI

One reason for not using the new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding is that the federal stimulus package recently poured $1.4 billion into sewer projects in the Great Lakes states, said Vicki Thomas, an administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office. That money will back state-run, low-interest loan programs that are exempt from Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding.

But those loans are not a solution everywhere.

Some cash-strapped cities are having trouble taking out even low-interest loans. Michigan hoped to close $300 million in loans for infrastructure upgrades in Detroit this year, but the city had to back out, said Chip Heckathorn, manager of the state’s water project loan program.

“They don’t feel their ratepayers can afford it,” he said.

Another problem: Expensive sewer and treatment plant upgrades could quickly eat up the $475 million restoration initiative, Thomas said.

Milwaukee has already spent more than $1 billion on a system to ease the burden on its combined sewers during heavy rain, Ullrich said. Chicago has spent more than $3 billion on a similar project.

The 2004 EPA survey of sewer upgrade needs found it would take $54.8 billion to correct combined sewer overflows nationwide. Six Great Lakes states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York — account for 70 percent of that total.

Funding future brightens, still partly cloudy

The EPA estimates a $200 billion price tag for fixing the nation’s sewer shortfalls, including correcting overflows and upgrading treatment plants. Last year Congress sent $689 million for state wastewater project loans nationwide.

“That doesn’t even come close to dealing with the problem,” Ullrich said.

Future funding could come closer. The President’s 2010 budget requests $2.4 billion for the wastewater programs, nearly a four-fold increase over 2009.

But at the same time, Congress is debating legislation that could add application requirements to the low-interest loans that make them more cumbersome for local borrowers, Heckathorn said.

The same bill could shrink the percentage of the 2010 sewer funding some Great Lakes states take home. But with the pool of money four times bigger than it was in 2009, every state should still get more than it did that year, Heckathorn said.

“The pie would get so much bigger, even states with smaller slices would have more to eat.”

Poll: Should Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds be used to fix sewers? Vote.

3 thoughts on “Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds cannot be spent on region’s ailing sewers

  1. Pingback: Report: Healthy Great Lakes depend on federal money for region’s polluting sewers | Great Lakes Echo

  2. Here is the Northeast-Midwest report on the SRF allocation changes. Based on their numbers, the eight Great Lakes states’ share would shrink by 5 percent compared with the old formula.

    But it varies from state to state. Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Pennsylvania would all get a bigger percentage. But Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York lose enough to bring the eight-state average down.

    The Senate has already approved the new formula, but the House is working on a different version of the bill that wouldn’t put the new formula into play unless the program gets funded for more than around $1.3 billion annually.

    And that level of funding could happen, as President Barack Obama’s budget requests $2.4 billion for the sewer program next year. Last year the program only got $689 million.

    Congress hasn’t yet approved that increase. But if it does, Chip Heckathorn, the head of Michigan’s sewer loan program, said the funding boost should outweigh the smaller percentage share, so no Great Lakes states will actually pull in less money than they have previous years.

  3. Vicki Thomas is right that the stimulus and the State and Clean Water State Revolving Funds are the places to get money to upgrade the sewers. What people really need to know now is that Congress is planning to change the funding formula for the CWSRF and the Drinking Water and at least half the Great Lakes states will get less money if this goes through. So far, no one seems to be making a stink of it with their representatives or senators. You can read more about this at the Northeast Midwest Institute. I also wrote a blog about this at the Great Lakes Town Hall last week.

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